Du Plessix Gray, Francine
Francine du Plessix Gray 1930–
French-born American novelist and social critic.
In Divine Disobedience, Gray combines a crisp journalistic style of writing with an eloquent liberalism to explore contemporary Catholic radical ideas. Her two novels, Lovers and Tyrants and World without End, have been praised for their striking characterization and melodic prose.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)
Andrew M. Greeley
[Francine du Plessix Gray, the author of "Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism," is herself] a romantic, and there is not much doubt where her wide-eyed sympathies lay. The Berrigans are "political prisoners," convicted not for destroying Government property, but because of their ideas….
The rhetoric of her account of the Catonsville trial surpasses all the other recent trial accounts in its sympathy for the defendants. She is particularly skillful at using analogies from food to describe the members of the "silent majority" who constitute the juries. Their faces look alternately like "unbaked loaves" and "unrisen dough"; while the defendants are "gentle," "genuine," "affable," "impeccably groomed," "short and dainty." (p. 2)
Is it not at least arguable that the … Catholic radicals described in "Divine Disobedience" have become so self-righteous that their power to affect social change in the church has been all but destroyed? To ask these questions is not necessarily to imply an answer either way: rather, it is to suggest that there are complex issues at stake in Catholic radicalism of whose existence Mrs. Gray is as innocent as her heroes are innocent of self-doubt. (pp. 2, 13)
Or, to put the matter less indirectly, I think that the heroes of "Divine Disobedience" are likely to contribute very little to the reform either of the Catholic Church in the United States or of American...
(The entire section is 281 words.)
[Divine Disobedience is] a remarkable book, a book that achieves the near-impossible by being passionate, compassionate, and dispassionate….
It is, to be sure, a book of profiles of Catholic radicals who, in the spirit of Saint Paul, have been sent to prison often, menaced by their "so-called brothers." (p. 32)
The lives and thoughts of these men and women, their militant, nonviolent activism …, is presented in a marvelously colorful tapestry of profiles, a modern Passion Play re-enacting the lives of the early Christians. In her deft, rapid, paradoxically rich but austere prose, Francine Gray reveals herself as a fresh, important new talent in American letters.
But there is much more to Francine Gray and to her book than talent and the esthetic joy of reading so thrilling a romance and so controversial an account of conflict waged by a legion of Biblical characters in turtlenecks and peace insignia. Francine Gray is herself a militant, radical lay Catholic, active in the fight against war, poverty, racism, and repression. Like Bernanos she believes the real problem of our day is not the increase of rebels but of docile, self-repressed citizens.
Never intruding herself into her story, with a quick pen and unfailing ear—a reporter with perfect pitch for dialogue—she reproduces the words and thoughts of her characters, whose cool, hip language makes the most abstruse...
(The entire section is 380 words.)
Nowhere is there surprise [in "Lovers and Tyrants"]. And that is why [the novel], for all the wit and thrust of its prose, is finally so exasperating. The drone of its intelligence ultimately bores.
This is not so at the beginning. The novel starts off with a lively portrait of Stephanie's childhood oppression by a lonely White Russian governess…. And when Stephanie, in forgiving retrospect, recognizes the simultaneous yearning and selfishness behind that governess's love, it looks to the reader as if Mrs. Gray will ring infinite changes on the subtle ambiguities of love and tyranny.
And in four of the five chapters that follow, she seems to succeed….
What's more, Mrs. Gray almost always writes with fierce intelligence and perspicacity. She has a deadly ear for a certain kind of dialogue….
But everything goes wrong with "Lovers and Tyrants" when Stephanie marries her puritanical New England husband ("Marriage and Madness") and then runs off in that final chapter ("Stephanie") to her rendezvous with androgyny. Perhaps it is that Stephanie is better at fondling the past than at scrapping with the present. Perhaps it is that Mrs. Gray began writing by writing a series of memoirs … and then failed in her attempt to project them into a novel about the untrammeling of women. In any case, when Stephanie in that final chapter writes in her journal, "I think I might have a novel...
(The entire section is 326 words.)
A few years ago, Francine du Plessix Gray's "Divine Disobedience" surveyed radical and libertarian stirrings in the Catholic Church subsequent to Vatican II. Ivan Illich, the Bishop of Cuernavaca, and the Berrigan brothers were among the clerical freedom fighters profiled in this highly intelligent work of personal and investigative reportage. Herself committed to the goal of liberation, Mrs. Gray remained ironically aware of elements of the quixotic and contradictory in the various attempts her book depicted to "make it new" within the confines of one of the most hidebound institutions on earth….
["Lovers and Tyrants,"] a first novel, is also taken up with the tension or dialectic between liberation and confinement, between breaking free from history and discovering where and how one fits into history; but the ground has shifted from the ecclesiastical to the erotic and marital, and much of Mrs. Gray's irony, operating as a sense of rational limits, has either gotten lost or gone so deadpan as to be unnoticeable. This last comment is directed particularly at the final two sections of the novel, "Marriage and Madness" [and "Stephanie"]…. In the first of these we see her heroine Stephanie, a highly educated French-American upper-middle-class woman in her late thirties, blessed with a tender, compliant husband, fine children, satisfying professional work as a writer and college teacher, with practically unlimited access to...
(The entire section is 574 words.)
What Ms Gray sets her heroine, Stephanie, to do [in Lovers and Tyrants] is to explore and witness to the solitariness of a "body-crazed society", the restlessness in face of commitment, and the temptations to non-commitment, which are our latest truisms….
Stephanie marries an irreproachable American…. With so much perfection, it is from the first "an aging marriage"; Stephanie, though her career blossoms, she says, into college lecturing and protest-leading, feels restless and confined. Eventually she undergoes a matronly freak-out in Colorado, with a lapsed-Jesuit guru who teaches her to meditate on Nothing, and an ineffably beautiful young homosexual called Elijah, who rips things off (a high term for shoplifting) as he is an anarchist, but "asks her serious questions, what's life, what's death, what's hope."… It is tempting to see this last section of the book as parody—Ms Gray can certainly be very funny. On the other hand, she has always seemed so appreciatively close to Stephanie that it would be hard to believe that she is only pointing out the difficulties of the menopause (even with hints of cancer, after hysterectomy). Stephanie is tiny and blonde and beautiful, as well as having French blood; all of which, one learns from the dustjacket alone, she shares with her creator. One has to banish such thoughts; otherwise both of them come to seem uncomfortably narcissistic, and the...
(The entire section is 285 words.)
Good news for Mary McCarthy: The novel of ideas isn't dead. Francine du Plessix Gray's [World Without End] is full of ideas. The bad news is that the wit, elegance, and occasional brilliance that informed her first novel, Lovers and Tyrants, are only a shadow of their former selves. The author's intelligence, spirit, and seriousness of purpose are unmistakable, but what they add up to is less a novel than a morality play.
Three middle-aged friends, bound by ties of the flesh and the spirit, make a trip to the Soviet Union to "recreate … that ethereal summit of candor which only friendship can offer," to "take the risk of total truth-telling in order to make the last third or fourth of our existence bearable."
Edmund is an art historian and painter, Sophie a television news reporter, and Claire an ascetic WASP…. Although these main characters occasionally come alive, they too often sound exactly alike. Their lives are perfect reflections of the cultural changes that have swept America since the Fifties. In fact, between the three of them, Edmund, Sophie, and Claire have hit every trendy road stop on the zeitgeist.
Like Lovers and Tyrants, this is an ambitious novel about love and friendship, faith and doubt, liberty and license. But these unruly concepts demand more stylistic discipline than Gray has chosen to impose. The result is a disappointing case of metaphysical...
(The entire section is 257 words.)
"World Without End" is a very good novel, and a fine surprise. I was not an admirer of Francine du Plessix Gray's first novel, although her nonfiction books on "Divine Disobedience" and "Hawaii: The Sugar-Coated Fortress" were graceful and intelligent and quirky. That first novel, "Lovers and Tyrants," suffered from a sort of vegetable rot of lyricism, especially when she wrote about sex, which she wrote about as clumsily as D. H. Lawrence. "Honeyed Interstices," indeed.
There is sex in "World Without End," but not much flora and fauna in the description of it. There is lyric excess, in conversation, in letters and in thought … but, obviously, it is ironic. Mrs. Gray has chosen to satirize the art, the religion and the politics of the last 35 years. She has also chosen to forgive the creatures of her satire; they are more disappointed in themselves than readers will be in them as characters….
For most of the time of the novel, we are in the Soviet Union in 1975. Edmund, Claire and Sophie are trying to come to terms with their long friendship. Most of the time we are also in Edmund's head. He loved Claire and settled for Sophie and spent some dreary years … living with his own conservatism … and that sense of melancholy, boredom and the void that he abhors in modern art….
In Russia on vacation, after three decades of their obsessive triad, Edmund, Claire and Sophie sort themselves out and...
(The entire section is 436 words.)
If one were given to reviewing by bestowing genre-labels one might call Francine Gray's [World Without End] … a prime entry in the novel of intelligence. It is just that: the lives she tells about ring with authenticity for their times and their place. The three who are her heroes love each other and are held together by their participation in all the artistic, intellectual, religious, and psycho-sexual movements of the American twentieth-century. They move across continents and hemispheres of class, national origins, poverty, success, dissatisfaction, and rebellion against the present and the inherited past, thus involving a complete contemporary culture in their lives. (p. 306)
[The] bond among the three heroes, from their adolescence on Nantucket to their tour of the Soviet Union in June 1975 and into the present, is unbreakable. (p. 308)
While the three travel together in the Soviet Union, Edmund reflects "on the dilemma facing three persons in middle age who've had a lifelong obsession for each other."
Since that lifelong obsession is the subject-matter of the book, one does not expect much "to happen," and of course it does not. There are changes in their lives, but their natures remain very much the same. At forty-five they are still looking for themselves, or "finding themselves" in the odious phrase of the sixties, learning that what they were is what they are and will be…. (pp....
(The entire section is 487 words.)
D. M. Thomas
The preciousness of [the main characters' friendship in World Without End] is made much of; it is also precious in a less favorable sense. They address each other by such terms as "Clair de Lune," "Eddem," "Sofka." I would carefully avoid them at a cocktail party, but they are well-drawn, especially Edmund. The opening chapter sets them on their Russian holiday; then their interwoven histories are related through a series of lengthy flashbacks. This technique may have been unavoidable, but by removing the element of uncertainty and surprise—what will happen to them?—it weakens the narrative interest.
The book moves slowly, heavy with minute particulars. This in time exercises its own fascination; du Plessix Gray's strength lies in her exacting and acute attention to detail. One of the best passages describes the death of Edmund's cat, egregiously but convincingly named Vico: "In the last days Vico's eyes remain closed for long moments of time, he opened his eyes in a new way, not upon the call of a voice or the din of conversation which John brought with him but as though to simply look at the room for a moment before closing his eyes again; to remember the room better or simply to see that it was still there." This is tenderly and truthfully observed, and the straightforward style catches the truth. But why "moments of time"? Are there any others? And the split infinitive, "to simply look," irritates: a minor grammatical...
(The entire section is 493 words.)
In "World Without End," Francine du Plessix Gray displays the one indispensable gift in a novelist—she generates slowly and authoritatively a mixed set of entirely credible human beings who shunt back and forth through credible time and are altered by the trip. Ample, generous and mature, the book is stocked with the goods a novel best provides. Among its provisions is a complicated and interesting plot.
On Nantucket in 1945, three 15-year-olds meet and cast their lot with one another: Edmund, Sophie, Claire. They are all ferociously bright and famished for life…. By 1975, the three are wrecked in lonely middle age. They have survived, with sporadic nursing; and they resolve to visit Russia in the hope of learning "how to live the last third of our lives." In unexpected ways, Russia grants the hope.
Those are the bones of the story that Francine du Plessix Gray has scattered through her second novel. I say "scattered" because Mrs. Gray's method challenges the reader to build a whole skeleton: the novel begins in Leningrad in 1975, cuts to Nantucket in 1945, and thereafter moves in leisurely switchbacks between the present of the Russian tour and the evolving past as the three friend-lovers advance toward their crucial encounters in the warm proto-soup of Byzantine Russia, thinly varnished by a Communism only a little older than our trio.
That method of chronological disarrangement—while it's a...
(The entire section is 1046 words.)